Monday, July 29, 2013

Beat the Heat, Chasing the Formula


The Miami Heat obviously have a lot to be happy about.  Three straight years of Eastern conference dominance coupled with two titles alongside two MVP trophies proves that Miami is the cream of the NBA's crop, and rightfully so, analysts and critics can't talk NBA without talking Heat basketball.

When Derrick Rose called himself the best player in the league the criticism over his comments turned into a full on discussion about LeBron James' recent accomplishments.  

Doesn't he know LeBron James personally?  Did he even watch the NBA last season?  

Regardless you can't, and you shouldnt, expect any teams' marquee player to say differently.  Hell, I bet if you posed the same question to Dwyane Wade he'd probably answer "Dwyane Wade."  
Moving on.

When the Brooklyn Nets pumped steroids into their roster full of KG, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry, initially the transaction fueled the NBA's "Battle of the Boroughs," and Knicks comparisons were rampant.  But, the conversation casually transitioned into a full on speculation over Brooklyn's ability to contend with Miami.  

Go figure.

Even Jason Terry brought up the Heat during the Nets' introductory press conference claiming that he knew the formula to beat the reigning two-time champs.  Given that Terry beat the Heat in the finals as a member of the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, he hasn't been too successful since then and he mentioned this "formula" several times last season alone.  What's more, is that he almost joined forces with Miami last summer.

Awkward.

Chalk it up to Lebron's player evolvement and/or Spoelstra's coaching development, but the bottom line is that it's been almost 730 days since any team has bested the Heat over seven games or dominated a regular season series against them, and as expected the rest of the NBA is getting antsy.

I've watched dozens of Heat neutralizing strategies come and go, but in my opinion, I've only witnessed two types of "formulas" that seriously gave the Heat headaches over the last two seasons.

Recently, the Indiana Pacers made a free agent splash with slithery, veteran forward Luis Scola who should help fortify their already strong front court; the same front court that gave the Miami Heat issues a few months ago.  I'm not saying that this gives Indiana an edge over the Heat, I'm just pointing out that they're following their own "Heat-humanizing" formula based on size and board supremacy.  During the playoffs they relentlessly pounded the ball inside and let their bruisers beat up the Heat down low, which slowed Miami down and disrupted their favorably quick offensive tempo.  Miami struggled at times with Indiana's dominance on the boards and specifically, Roy Hibbert and David West gave them fits on both sides of the ball.

It took a concentrated coaching effort from Spoelstra to come up with a plan to counter-act the Pacers' interior defense and make Indiana's big men move out of the paint.  Thus we saw the birth of an isolation offense that allowed LBJ to isolate his defender on the block and run the offense through his post-play, as well as a renewed defensive dedication focused on forcing turnovers (rather than creating them) and pushing the pace.  The Heat defense was able to re-spark their run and gun tempo, and Lebron was able to find open teammates for in-rhythm shots after Indiana started doubling him in the post.  Undoubtedly, the Pacers' "sizeable Heat-beating formula" came up short and needed tweaking.

In the 2013 NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs improved on the Pacers' blueprints and came within seconds of hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy themselves.  The Spurs took advantage of their size and forced the ball inside to Tim Duncan and Thiago Splitter consistently.  Their bigs set hard picks on the Heat guards and got physical with Chris Bosh and Lebron in the paint, but it was the Spurs' defense that revolutionized the Heat-stopping equation. 

At first it almost sounded dumb.  They were just going to let Wade, Lebron, Bosh, and the rest of the Heat take 15+ foot jumpers with very little defensive pressure? Why not?

In fact, they let the Heat literally probe the perimeter without any defensive pressure whatsoever and surprisingly, it was genius.  Not only did this slow the game down in San Antonio's favor, it allowed the Spurs to sustain their offensive aggression without fatiguing their veterans, and it totally confused Miami's offensive rhythm.  They couldn't isolate LeBron in the post because the Spurs kept three or four defenders in the paint, and when Miami's shooting went sour, their offense sputtered to a complete halt.  They were forcing bad shots and out of rhythm pull-ups, failing to turn defense into offense, and they were completely frustrated on both ends of the court for half of the series.

Yet again, Miami figured out a way to bag the Title nonetheless.  Wade, James, and company stopped settling for outside jumpers and attacked the Spurs' defense, reinvigorating the Heat tempo and creating easier in-rhythm shots.  Also, Miami's role players finally showed up in the last few games.  

Additionally, Popovich's coaching blunders in game 6 and 7, as well as the Heat's lockdown defense on Danny Green shouldn't be overlooked either.

I hate to say it, but as far as I'm concerned this "formula" doesn't exist, at least not yet.  And even if some semblance of these guidelines work, no one can plan for the Herculean individual efforts that the NBA elite are capable of.  In other words, no variable exists for an 80+ point performance of a Kobe Bryant, or a 20 point, 14 assist, 10 rebound triple-double from Rajon Rondo.  

In games 6 and 7 of the 2013 Finals, Lebron went unconcious to the tune of 34.5 points, 2.5 steals, 7.5 assists, and 11 rebounds per game on almost 47% shooting.

There was nothing anyone could do to stop him.

So here's my advice to the NBA masterminds, focus on the defensive side of the equation and tweak the tempo containment variables.  

Jay-Z was right:

"Somewhere in the NBA, teams are still tweaking.  So tweak, tweak, tweak, tweak NBA, NBA, tweak!"

Thanks for tuning in,

The Mattman

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